Doris Donnelly
If she were a name-dropper, Jane Kopas might tell us that she and Pope John XXIII agree about many things. She would agree with his opening address at the Second Vatican Council, when the pope, attentive to reading the signs of the times, said that the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. Her thoughtful book Seeking the Hidden God reads the signs of the times and is written in language that makes sense to people who believe God exists but who no longer know God as they once did. Kopas, a Franciscan sister and spiritual writer, counts herself among the many faithful believers who experience a hidden and elusive God and who do not find God in the old familiar places and in the old familiar ways as before. The result is a book that is part consolation, part education and part exercise in courage.

Weighing in on the consolation side is the fact that we are not the first strugglers in our search for an elusive God. There is evidence of the hiddenness of God as far back as the Hebrew Scriptures. Job is a case in point. Afflicted with grotesque suffering, Job finds that an old theology that understood suffering as a punishment for sin was not helping very much. Kopas exposes not only the limits of logic when it comes to suffering but also offers slivers of insight about its power to transform us. Slivers, by the way, are about the best we can hope for, because a neatly wrapped package of understanding will not be forthcoming. Instead we find Job, Jonah and even Moses making the mistake of expecting God to conform to their expectations; they learn, sometimes painfully, that God comes on other terms.

Unfortunately, things are no different when Jesus enters the picture. Not only his message but also his person is hidden from so many that Jesus resorts to the shock value of parables to unhinge preconceptions and set the record straight about who God is and how God acts. By all accounts, it was uncomfortable for his listeners and occasionally exasperating for Jesus as well.

With an excellent synthetic grasp of the spirituality of the mystics and select theologians from across centuries, Kopas assumes the role of educator and explores the reason for the emergence of an apophatic theology that emphasized the incomprehensibility of God. Its aim was to erase stereotypes, images and thoughts about God, because they limited who God is. Forget it all. Start from scratch. Empty all ideas about God. Listen and do not speak because words are a guaranteed way of getting in the way of the kind of knowledge that counts. In fact, Kopas reminds us that if theology refers to speech about God, then apophatic theology refers to that speech about God which is the failure of speech. This approach may be tough going, but it holds the promise of another sliver of understanding.

On the other hand, because we enter some unfamiliar terrain when we negotiate a relationship with an elusive, hidden God, Kopas suggests three images to help us as we shift from one-dimensional images (king, rock, fortress) to more relational ones. She argues convincingly that one-dimensional images too often objectify God, while two-dimensional and paradoxical ones breathe more space and freedom into our relationship. The images she suggestschallenging companion, compassionate adversary, fertile emptinessmay lack the touch of the poet, but they convey an appreciation for God as sometimes this way and sometimes that way and nip any attempt to pin God down or box God in.

The author’s last role is as coach. She cautions against relying on virtues that fit another age and suggests new ones. In an age of pluralism, she advises that it is crucial for us to be rooted in our own tradition while remaining open to God’s presence in other religious traditions. In an age of technology and multitasking, there is a need to live more contemplatively by embracing simplicity, relinquishing the need for an ideal self, laying aside the usual defenses and trusting the presence of the sacred in the ordinary. And in an age of information and pragmatism, there is a need to practice humility and compassion that lead to a graceful forgetting-of-self by loving, forgiving and acting justly toward others.

As a bonus for readers who want to learn more, Kopas draws from the writings of Dorothy Day, Nancy Mairs, William Faulkner, Mark Salzman, T. S Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, St. Bonaventure, Denise Levertov, Diana Eck, Kathleen Norris and others to validate her instincts and ours. The final consolation for seekers of a hidden God is that we are in very good company.

Doris Donnelly is a professor of theology at John Carroll University, Cleveland, where she directs the Cardinal Suenens Center.